132 Dissolving Materialism

Materialism, both scientific and philosophical, undergirds modernity.  The physical world, ourselves included, must be reduced to simple material entities, and if we understand them we understand everything.  This was proclaimed by Julien Offray de la Mettrie in the 18th century, who asserted, in L’homme machine (1747) that the mind and the brain are simply two words for a single material entity.  Essentially the same is declared by “evolutionary psychologists” such as MIT’s Steven Pinker today.  Man himself can be fully explained in terms of cells and neurons, following mechanical biological and chemical laws.  There are but slight differences of degree separating man from other animals, and to understand him the empirical sciences alone provide the key.  Reducing man to a machine, portraying the mind as a purely material entity–akin to the clockwork universe derived from Newton’s Laws–provides the foundation for secularism.

Countering such a worldview with the best of recent scientific research stands Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, who with Sharon Begley has written a fascinating and persuasive treatise, The Mind and the Brain:  Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, c. 2002).  This book builds upon the research he’s engaged in for 20 years, blending it into far-reaching philosophical conclusions, for “If materialism can be challenged in the context of neuroscience, if stark physical reductionism can be replaced by an outlook in which the mind can exert causal control, then, for the first time since the scientific revolution, the scientific worldview will become compatible with such ideals as will–and, therefore, with morality and ethics” (pp. 52-53).  He argues, armed with recent research breakthroughs, a view earlier advocated by noted neurologists such as Wilder Penfield, Charles Sherrington, and John Eccles–impeccably qualified scholars who (generally after a lifetime of study) concluded that there’s simply something more to the mind than the brain.  As Penfield said, in 1975, “‘Although the content of consciousness depends in large measure on neuronal activity, awareness itself does not . . . .  To me, it seems more and more reasonable to suggest that the mind may be a distinct and different essence'” (p. 163).

Materialistic assumptions–not accurate scientific data, Schwartz says–explain the deeply rooted belief that the brain, as a biological entity, fully explains our thinking processes.  Fleshed out in the highly influential writing of behaviorists such as John Watson and B.F. Skinner, or of psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud, materialism scoffed at free will and any alleged ability of the person thinking to transcend the mechanical activities of his brain.  To materialists, reference to any immaterial “mind” denotes the superstitions of a pre-scientific era.  Taking their position, of course, eliminates the possibility of consciousness (“knowing that you know” {p. 26}), free will and moral responsibility.  Indeed:  “The rise of modern science in the seventeenth century–with the attendant attempt to analyze all observable phenomena in terms of mechanical chains of accusation–was a knife in the heart of moral philosophy, for it reduced human beings to automatons” (p. 52).

Early enchanted by the mysterious inner workings of the thought processes, Schwartz began to do research with people suffering obsessive-compulsive disorders (e.g. repetitively washing one’s hands).  Drawing upon the Buddhist notion of mindfulness, he taught them to learn how to stand apart from their compulsive thoughts, to evaluate and consciously correct them, allowing their “minds” to give directions to their “brains.”  Such therapy did more than help his patients, however, for with the assistance of PET data Schwartz began to document the amazing plasticity of the brain.  “This was the first study ever to show that cognitive-behavior therapy–or, indeed, any psychiatric treatment that did not rely on drugs–has the power to change faulty brain chemistry in a well-identified brain circuit.  What’s more, the therapy had been self-directed, something that was and to a great extent remains anathema to psychology and psychiatry” (p. 90).  The conscious mind, supervising brain activities, actually re-wires the brain!

Schwartz’s neurological research linked him up with Henry Stapp, an eminent physicist working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory near Berkeley, California, who has devoted his scholarly career to the study of quantum physics.  Working out the implications of quantum theory as enunciated by John von Neumann, the great Hungarian mathematician, who said “‘that the world is built not out of bits of matter but out of bits of knowledge–subjective, conscious knowings'” (p. 31), Stapp’s research, fortuitously, paralleled Schwartz’s, and he had concluded, as is evident in Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics, that nuclear physics also reveals how the immaterial “mind” shapes the material world.  “‘The replacement of the ideas of classical physics by the ideas of quantum physics,'” says Stapp, “‘completely changes the complexion of the mind-brain dichotomy, of the connection between the mind and the brain'” (p. 48).  The reigning assumption, entrenched since Descartes, that only material entities could causally affect other material entites, dissolves in the world of quantum mechanics.  This is illustrated by the phenomenon of nonlocality, perhaps one of the most important scientific breakthroughs in the history of science.  Quantum physics shows that a specific “action here can [instantly] affect conditions there” (p. 348), even though here and there are light years apart!  Physical causation requires no material medium!  So Stapp and Schwartz both now believe that the power of the will, freely exercised, independent of physical stimuli, “generates a physical force that has the power to change how the brain works and even its physical structure” (p. 18).

In the process of building his philosophical case, Schwartz provides an extensive and fascinating discussion of what we know about the brain, a truly marvelous and mysterious three-pound ball of neurons.  He details how the brain develops, how it responds to various stimuli, how experiments with monkeys have opened for us deeper understandings of how it functions.  Virtually all the studies he discusses–and the high-level scholarly conferences he’s attended–have taken place during the past decade, and one easily grasps how up-to-date and pertinent is his presentation.  Within the past five years, for example, important and encouraging work has been done with small groups of stroke victims, who were once thought permanently disabled.  A new kind of therapy, constraint-induced (CI), reveals, for “the first time,” a demonstrable “re-wiring of the brain” following a stroke (p. 195).  Children suffering specific language impairment (SLI) may hope, given recently developed therapies, to overcome their affliction.

What’s being proved in such experiments is what researchers a decade ago widely doubted:  the reality of neurogenesis, neuroplasticity–consciously directed brain developments.   This further means we are truly free to think and to act.  Locked into classical physics, even Einstein in 1931 declared that it is “man’s illusion that he [is] acting according to his own free will'” (p. 299).  Ever resisting quantum theory, with its indeterminism, Einstein represents a worldview in the process of dissolving, Schwartz believes.  And he cites recent, carefully crafted experiments, documented in a special 1999 issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies devoted to “The Volitional Brain:  Towards a Neuroscience of Free Will,” that demonstrate the growing openness to human freedom in the brain research community.  Much of this is to say that William James was right, a century ago, when he insisted that “Volitional effort is effort of attention.”  What we freely attend to, in our consciousness, shapes us.  “The mind creates the brain” (p. 364).  Obviously the brain is the material with which the mind works.  But mind is more than the brain.  As Anthony Burgess wrote, in A Clockwork Orange, “‘Greatness comes from within . . . .  Goodness is something chosen.  When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man'” (p. 290).

The Mind and the Brain is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in some time.  Dealing with some of the most difficult theoretical issues imaginable, the authors succeed in making clear the implications of the most recent scientific research.  And, equally important, they understand the philosophical implications of their study and develop them persuasively.

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Coming at the same issue from a very different perspective is Benjamin Wiker’s Moral Darwinism:  How We Became Hedonists (Downers Grove:  InterVarsity Press, c. 2002).  The book’s plot, as William Dembski says, is this:  “Epicurus set in motion an intellectual movement that Charles Darwin brought to completion” (p. 9).  Still more:  “Understanding this movement is absolutely key to understanding the current culture war” (p. 9).  Underlying both the ancient and the modern versions of hedonism is an anti-supernatural cosmological materialism.  Consequently, theists who see God at the center of their worldview cannot but do battle with Epicureans of every century, and Wiker wants to help arm us for active combat.

Materialism pervades virtually all branches of science, ranging from astronomy to microbiology, as naturalistic thinkers insist that everything that exists can be reduced to simply material entities.  The basic reason for this, Wiker says, is that “modern science itself was designed to exclude a designer.  Even more surprising, modern science was designed by an ancient Greek, Epicurus,” who lived three centuries before Christ (p. 18).  “The argument of this book, then, is that the ancient materialist Epicurus provided an approach to the study of nature–a paradigm, as the historian of science Thomas Kuhn called it–which purposely and systematically excluded the divine from nature, not only in regard to the creation and design of nature, but also in regard to divine control of, and intervention in, nature.  This approach was not discovered in nature; it was not read from nature.  It was, instead, purposely imposed on nature as a filter to screen out the divine” (p. 20).  To support his hedonistic ethics, to feel at ease with his lifestyle, Epicurus set forth a materialistic cosmology.  Centuries later, “Modernity began by embracing his cosmology and ends by embracing his morality” (p. 23).

Wiker develops his argument by tracing historical developments of Epicurean thought.  Embracing Democritus’s scientific hypothesis–that nothing exists but atoms-in-motion–Epicurus developed a consistent materialism that reduces moral questions to preferences of pleasure rather than pain.  Good is what feels good.  Evil is what feels bad.  So do whatever feels good, however much it may change from time to time and place to place.  Epicurus’s ideas were picked up and given poetic expression by Lucretius, one of the great Latin stylists.  Though Hedonism certainly impacted the ancient world, it wilted under the philosophical weight of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy and the dynamic growth of Christianity.  The world is as it is, Christians insisted, because God designed it.  The godless cosmos and normless ethos of Epicurus slipped into the cellar of discarded errors as Christians shaped Western Christian Culture during the Medieval Era.  But errors are often dragged back to light, dressed up in new clothes, and such happened to Epicureanism.  During the late Middle Ages the authority of Aristotle was questioned and nominalism made powerful inroads in key quarters.  As the Renaissance developed, Lucretius was rediscovered, along with other classical texts, paving the way for the “scientific revolution” of the 17th and 18th centuries.  “We are materialists in modernity,” Wiker says, “in no small part, because were lovers of Lucretius at the dawn of modernity” (p. 59).

Shaping modernity were gifted scientists such as Galileo and Newton, in whom Wiker sees “the vindication of atomism through the victory of mathematics” (p. 112).  Consequently, under the guidance of increasingly irreligious scientists, a triumphant worldview is established which demonstrates “the complete theoretical victory of Epicurean materialism, all the essential elements of Epicurus’s system–the eternal and indestructible atoms, the infinite universe with the unlimited number of worlds the banishment of the creator God, the rejection of miracles, the displacement of design in nature by chance and material necessity, and the elimination of the immaterial soul–fell into place during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (p. 112).  Laplace’s answer to Napoleon’s question concerning the place of God in his scientific work, sums up the consummation of this process:  “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.”

Without God, objective morality disappears as well.  Such is starkly evident in the work of Thomas Hobbes, one of the architects of modern thought.  By nature, we war against each other; only the fittest survive–nothing is naturally right or wrong.  To secure a peaceful society, however, we assent to the rule of a sovereign, who prescribes the rules.  Hobbes also helped subvert the authority of any divinely inspired Scripture, devising an approach of interpretation consonant with his Epicurean materialism, denying the reality of the immaterial, immortal soul, questioning the possibility of miracles and of heaven and earth.  Benedict Spinoza picked up on such ideas, and the corrosive acid of biblical criticism gained momentum.  So it follows that Thomas Jefferson, who “considered himself an Epicurean and studied Epicurus in Greek” (p. 207) and put together his own sacred text, entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Importantly, Wiker concludes, Epicureanism shaped Darwinism.  A materialistic metaphysics, evident in both positions, cannot be shape the ethical views it dictates.  Neither Epicurus nor Darwin had demonstrable evidence for their theories, but they both had a solid faith in their explanatory powers.  Eminent scientists, such as Lord Kelvin (relying on statistical probability) and Louis Agassiz (the reigning expert on fossils), resolutely critiqued the theory of evolution through natural selection.  But philosophers (Spencer and Marx) and publicists (Huxley) found it perfectly designed for their moral and social agendas.  Importantly, Wiker says, “We must always keep this in mind:  for Darwin nature did not intend to create morality, any more than nature intended to create certain species; morality was just one more effect of natural selection working on the raw material of variations in the individual” (p. 244).

In an amoral cosmos, of course, anything goes.  Thus Darwinian science has incubated Epicurean Hedonism.  Here Wiker guides us through the development of eugenics, from Darwin through Haeckel (whose books sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Germany) to Hitler himself.  Eugenics easily justifies abortion and euthanasia, also proposed by Haeckel as ways whereby to purify the race and later employed by Hitler’s henchmen.  Nearer home, Margaret Sanger embraced Darwinism and promoted various eugenic measures.  She championed birth control, for example, in order “‘To Create a Race of Thoroughbreds'” (p. 266).  Sexual activity itself, Sanger believed, should involve anything that feels good, for nothing is moral in the world of evolution through natural selection.

Even more abandoned to amorality was Alfred Kinsey, long regarded as an eminent man of science, a “sexologist” who allegedly informed the nation how people actually behaved.  Recent studies reveal that Kinsey was an incredibly perverted man, engaging in various forms of deviant behavior, including pedophilia.  His allegedly “scientific” studies were, in fact, fraudulent screeds designed to encourage the breakdown of sexual restraint.  However untrue, his views entered the nation’s textbooks and journalistic assumptions, powerfully evident in an episode on the recent PBS Evolution series, where viewers were encouraged to see the similarities between the sex life of humans and some primates called “bonobos,” who engage in all sorts of sexual activity (heterosexual and homosexual, adults with juveniles) simply for pleasure.  Consequently:  “Just as Kinsely’s views on the naturalness of premarital sex and homosexuality became the scientific foundation for the transformation of sexual morality from a Christian natural law position to that of the Epicurean, so also Kinsey’s views on the naturalness of pedophilia have become the foundation of the slow but sure revolution going on right now pushing adult-child sex and natural” (p. 285).  And, according to Darwinian principles, anything that feels good is natural and thus allowed.

Wiker sets forth a fascinating historical thesis.  To see modernity in the light of Epicurus certainly clarifies the deeply philosophical premise that shapes our culture.  To do as well as our ancient Fathers in the Faith, responding to hedonism, is clearly our challenge.